Jonathan Lee  ‘20

Senior Staff Writer

Illustration by Richard Farrell ’22.

Authorities are still unpacking the details and implications of the recent bizarre election fraud scandal in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District. The plot, designed to benefit Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris in the 2018 midterm election, has again illustrated the legal and moral boundaries political operatives are willing to cross to maintain power.

For many North Carolinians, the scandal has tainted the electoral process, leaving them questioning the legitimacy of their vote. Political analysts see it as another instance of our country’s broken, polarized politics, where a ‘win at any cost’ mentality prevails.

“The election fraud… is unlike anything I have seen or experienced in sixteen years of studying North Carolina politics,” wrote Visiting Professor of Political Science Michael Bitzer on his blog, The Old North State. In an interview with The Davidsonian, he added that “North Carolina is another first in the nation, having a congressional election overturned by election fraud.”

Yesterday, North Carolina State Board of Elections Chair Bob Cordle ‘63, Executive Director Kim Strach, and General Counsel Josh Lawson visited Davidson to publicly comment on the election fraud investigation for the first time. Students, professors, members of the media, political operatives, and other observers crowded into Tyler-Tallman Hall to witness and participate in the event. Dr. Bitzer and Dr. Susan Roberts moderated the discussion, which included a period of audience question and answer.

Bitzer was quick to cast doubt on the results from Bladen County on election night. Here, 61% of absentee ballots were cast for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris even though only 19% of those ballots came from registered Republicans. As a result of these skewed numbers, state officials launched an investigation that resulted in the unraveling of an election fraud scheme designed to give Republicans an edge in the especially close district.

After testimony from Harris and his staff in which the candidate admitted that “the public’s confidence in the… election has been undermined,” the Board of Elections, made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, voted unanimously in favor of holding a new special election. Harris, ostensibly due to health reasons, will not seek reelection.

The Ninth Congressional District includes the southeastern edge of Mecklenburg County and extends to part of Bladen County, a mostly rural area between between Fayetteville and Wilmington where the majority of the fraudulent ballots were found. Leslie McCrae Dowless, an “equal opportunity” political operative “that had worked for both Republicans and Democrats,” masterminded the scheme, Bitzer explained.

According to Bitzer, Dowless likely ran similar operations before the 2018 midterms, “perhaps going back to 2010 Election but certainly in 2016 and most evidently in the primary in 2018. It just happened that this time his hand got caught in the cookie jar.”

At Tuesday’s event on campus, panel members detailed how the Harris campaign hired Red Dome Consulting to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. Red Dome hired Dowless and billed the Harris campaign for his services. Dowless and other staffers illegally collected absentee ballots and falsely witnessed the ballots by forging signatures.

Dowless was indicted on three counts of felony obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot related to his schemes in the 2016 election and 2018 primary. He faces up to two years in prison for his actions. Four others were also indicted on similar charges. Harris denied that he knew of Dowless’s scheme; staffers corroborated his testimony.

If the results of the election had stood, Harris would have been favored above Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, one of the smallest margins nationwide. Although there were not enough fraudulent absentee ballots to overturn the election, the Board of Elections deemed that the integrity of the race was sufficiently tainted enough to call a new election.

“I really honestly think that it should strengthen people’s confidence because we caught it. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening everywhere else. North Carolina isn’t worse than other states. We are the only elections agency nationally that has in-house investigators. Folks with a lot of elections expertise are looking closely at the results. This is not like in a vast majority of states, where only law regular enforcement is doing it. North Carolinians can be especially confident that their votes count, that the process is preserving the integrity of the election,” said General Counsel Lawson.

The primary for the special election will be held on May 14th. In the September 10th election, Democratic candidate Dan McCready will face off against the victor in a large pool of lesser known Republican candidates. The primary could go to a run-off, which would be held on September 10th and would push back the election until November 5th, a full year after the original election.

Drew Kromer ‘19, Chair of the Precinct 206 Democrats, foresees abundant national media coverage, a large flow of outside money, much of it directed towards ads, and the arrival of people from both parties into the district as the election ramps up. “This is about to be the race,” he remarked.

The special election is removed from other big elections, and it is likely to be seen as a referendum on President Trump’s popularity in the last year of his term. Kromer said that the race’s level of nation attention and influx of resources will be at a similar level to the 2017 special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District in which Democrat Jon Ossoff faced off against Republican Karen Handel.

In the end, Chairman Cordle concluded that the election fraud  “was not a Democratic problem, not a Republican problem, but a money problem. What the people there were looking for was money, and they did what they needed to do in order to make some money.”

Executive Director Strach stated: “Public trust in an election is the most important thing we can have because if you don’t have faith and confidence the results, then we have a real problem with our democracy.”